How collaboration, making an impact drive Abt’s Kathleen Flanagan

Kathleen Flanagan of Abt Associates explains how collaboration and making an impact drives both her and her employees and helped her win an executive of the year award at the 11th Annual Greater Washington Government Contractor Awards gala.

Kathleen Flanagan learned early on in her career to plan for success, to get out of her comfort zone, and to nurture the butterflies in her stomach that came with both.

Thirty years later, as Abt Associates CEO, that advice has paid off; Flanagan took away the award of executive of the year in the greater than $300 million category at the 11th annual Greater Washington Government Contractor Awards presented by the Fairfax, Va., Chamber of Commerce and the Professional Services Council.

Her advice to others is the same advice that she got when she started working at the company.

“Take one step further than the one that feels most comfortable to you,” Flanagan said.

She gives that advice to her employees, too. At Abt Associates, participation and feedback are encouraged, and Flanagan holds quarterly CEO breakfasts with her staff to get a sense of what they’re thinking and what suggestions they have.

It’s also at these meetings that Flanagan discusses strategy and talks about the company’s goals and objectives going forward; that way, everyone is in the loop, working together toward a common goal.

“Keeping your finger on the pulse of your organization and its culture is really important,” Flanagan said.

For Abt Associates, a company that has 2,700 employees across the globe, collaboration is important. When people work together, they learn from each other and are able to leverage all the skills they have to better meet the customer’s mission, Flanagan said.

The company’s number one mission is to improve the quality of life and economic well-being of individuals worldwide. Abt focuses on health care, employment, education and environment and climate, which are all areas that impact individuals across the world.

These are areas that impact peoples’ lives on a daily basis, and that’s the sort of thing that people can get behind; it’s what excites Abt’s employees and drives them to work hard and make an impact that betters others’ lives, she said. 

When people come to the company, they come to work toward this goal, and in exit interviews, people always comment about the positive impact that company has made on the individuals that it serves, Flanagan said.

“We’re a private company, and so while we strive to be financially healthy, it’s not a requirement that we maximize profits,” she said. That allows Abt Associates to strike a unique balance between mission success and being financially healthy.

One of the company’s most successful projects is a website called Nursing Home Compare, which allows people to go online and look at the quality of care at various caregiving facilities.

As the demographics change, and more people become elderly, their children and other caregivers are looking to give them the best quality care that they can. Nursing Home Compare facilitates this, allowing them to use its website to figure out which care is most suitable for their loved ones.

This is the kind of impact that Flanagan is looking for. It’s what made her apply to the company after she finished graduate school 30 years ago, and it’s what keeps her going today.

As the company enters its 50th year in 2014, it will face the fiscal challenges that the entire marketplace faces. Flanagan refers to them as rough waters.

“But the most important thing, as demonstrated by our 50-year history, is that we have the skills and experience to roll with the waves,” she said.

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